“Your money or your life?” “I’m thinking about it.” We may laugh at Jack Benny’s irrational behavior, but it represents a very real picture of many people’s priorities. For some, money has become more important than life itself.
NUMBER ONE IN AMERICA
The managing editor of Money magazine, summing up a study his magazine did, concluded that money has become the number-one obsession of Americans. “Money has become the new sex in this country,” he said. Newsweek magazine has described Americans as having achieved a new plane of consciousness called “transcendental acquisition.”
Madness about money. It’s everywhere. Fueled by our acquisitive culture, it lets few, if any, escape its grasp. Television promotes it, advertisements convince us that we must have it all, and state lotteries promise us that we can have it all now.
And the problem is not just “out there” in the world somewhere. The Christians have focused much of their attention on the things of this world, much to the grief of the Lord. Some of us love money. Some of us are committed to the almighty dollar. We love it, and we might as well admit it. We love the things it will buy. We love the comfort and the pleasure we think it will bring into our lives.
As hard as it may sound, the judgment is true: More than a few of us have left our first love of Christ and are having an affair with the world (the values, goals, priorities and thinking at any time anywhere by people alienated from God). What James wrote to some Christians in his day applies to us as well: “You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God” (Jas. 4:4). Hard words, to be sure, but words that make us stop and think and, if we are honest, make some needed changes.
THE STRUGGLE WITH MATERIALISM
There are two assumptions I hold as I write this.
First, I assume that, like me, you struggle with materialism. This article is as much for me as for anyone I know. In fact, it began as a personal study for personal correction.
I struggle with money and materialism. I bet you do, too. Simply, you want more. Maybe just a little more, but definitely more. And you are convinced, deep down where you make your choices, that if you had more, you would be happier and life would be better.
Our Lord said, “A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Lk. 12:15). But many of us have bought into Satan’s lie: “A man’s life does consist in how much he has and how much he can get.” As the bumper sticker says: “The man with the most toys wins.” That’s what we believe – the more, the better.
Second, I assume that you, like me, don’t feel at all comfortable with this struggle. You are trying to serve two masters – something Jesus said is impossible (Matt. 6:24). You are devoted to two very different kingdoms – the Kingdom of Heaven and the kingdom of this world – and you don’t feel good about it. You don’t like the struggle. In your spirit, you know something is wrong.
John Stott has written,
We cannot maintain a good life of extravagance and a good conscience simultaneously. One or the other has to be sacrificed. Either we keep our conscience and reduce our affluence by giving generously and helping those in need, or we keep our affluence and smother our conscience. We have to choose between God and man.
Now, if I understand Stott correctly, he is not saying that we must make ourselves poor and give everything we have away. Instead, he is saying that we have a spiritual obligation to reduce our affluence by sharing generously with those in need. To refuse to do this is to “smother our conscience,” something the Spirit of God will never allow us to do with any sense of comfort.
TOO MUCH CARE FOR THE WORLD
What is materialism? Does the Bible give us an answer so that we might know what to look for? Well, yes and no. The Scriptures do not give us a definition, but they do give us many pictures of its substance and character.
But first, you might be surprised at how some of our secular dictionaries define the problem. Listen to Webster’s Third New International Dictionary: materialism is “a preoccupation with, or tendency to seek after or stress material rather than spiritual things.” Sounds on target to me! My children’s dictionary, Thorndike and Barnhart Junior Dictionary, 1962, defines a materialist as “A person who cares too much for the things of this world and neglects spiritual needs.” For sure, someone at Webster and at Thorndike and Barnhart has been reading the Bible!
These are wonderful, biblical definitions of materialism. A materialist is someone who is preoccupied with the things of this world, cares too much for the things that can be purchased, spends his days dreaming only of the next acquisition. And he is frustrated if he can’t get what he wants when he wants to have it.
For the materialist, life is a preoccupation with jewelry, or landscaping, or remodeling the home, or trips abroad, or nice cars/trucks, or an elaborate music or computer system, or fancy clothes or sports equipment, or a good business deal. Life revolves around these things. He is obsessed with the “stuff’ of life.
And in the midst of it all, where is Jesus?
He is quietly and politely set aside. Like Martha in Lk. 10:38-42, the materialist is “distracted” from his Lord and “worried and upset about many things” (emphasis added).
NOT POSSESSION BUT OBSESSION
Look at the picture Jesus paints of a materialist in Lk. 12:16-21:
‘The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. He thought to himself, ‘What shall 1 do? I have no place to store my crops. “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry. “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ “This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.”
There he is – a man not “rich toward God,” a man preoccupied with treasure for himself. The spiritual dimension is set aside, the Kingdom of God (God’s interests) is given second place to the kingdom of this world. This is the materialist.
Now, it’s important to note that materialism is not mere possession of material things but obsession with them. That’s the distinction we must make in our minds.
Furthermore, materialism is not just the disease of the rich. Rich and poor alike can be obsessed with having more and having it now. All of us can be obsessed and preoccupied with stuff. Howard Hendricks, a great Bible teacher, puts it like this: “Materialism has nothing to do with the amount. It has everything to do with attitude.”
In 1 Tim. 6:17 we see the attitude: the obsession, the preoccupation with money and material things. Paul writes, “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth.” Notice, he does not say, “Command the rich to get rid of their wealth.” He does not say, “Command the rich to feel guilty about being wealthy.” He doesn’t say any of those things. He says, “Command the rich not to put their hope in wealth.”
That’s materialism: putting hope in riches instead of in God (1 Tim. 6:18). If that’s where my security lies, I worry about it, fret over it, and protect it – and if anybody gets near it and tries to take any of it away from me, watch out!
WARNING SIGNALS, BUT NO FORMULAS
You may be frustrated by this definition of materialism, a “preoccupation with the things of this world.” Why? Because there is no formula by which to judge when we or someone else has crossed the line into materialism. We want numbers or categories: “Oh yeah, he’s materialistic. He just paid over $150,000 for his house.” Or, “She’s not rich toward God; she owns a fur coat!” Or, “Yep, he just crossed the line. He bought a Cadillac.”
But it doesn’t work that way. That’s not in the Scriptures. Materialism is not a number. The New Testament doesn’t give us clear-cut formulas or categories. Materialism is an obsession, a passion, a preoccupation with the things of this world. It isn’t determined by how much or how little we have. It’s a matter of the heart.
If materialism is so subjective, what are some of its “warning signals”? Let me share a few of mine.
One, when I go from managing the money God has entrusted me with to being anxious over it, I know I have crossed the line into materialism (Matt. 6:25-34).
Two, when my eyes begin to wander and I begin to compare what others have with what I have, I know I’m on the wrong track. Envy is creeping into my life (1 Pet. 2:1).
Three, when I begin to lose appreciation for what the Lord has already given me, when I begin to focus on what I don’t have, I know I am preoccupied with material things.
And four, when I lose the joy of cheerful giving, when I’m focused on keeping rather than giving, when I’m focused on maintaining or building my little financial empire rather than reducing it for someone else’s good, then I know I am caring too much for the material over the spiritual.
These are the warning lights on my spiritual dashboard. When they start flashing, I’d better pull over and check under the hood. My conscience is muddied, my Lord is grieved, and I can feel it in my spirit.
LOVING, LONGING, AND LOSING
In counseling Timothy about the church’s support for those in need, Paul warned, “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs” (1 Tim. 6:10).
The materialist loves money. It is his lifeblood. Without it he is miserable, insecure, even hostile. But that’s not all. Materialists not only love money but also long for it. They crave it. They covet it. They want more; they never have enough.
One man put it so well: “Gold is like seawater. The more one drinks of it, the thirstier one becomes.” It’s never enough. We will never be satisfied with it.
And even that’s not all. The materialist not only loves money and longs for it but is also lost without it. Earlier Paul wrote, “People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction” (1 Tim. 6:9). Temptation, foolish desires, ruin, destruction – not a pretty ending for those preoccupied with money.
A few years ago I was sitting in my office in Dallas, and a man wandered in and sat down. He was nervous and embarrassed, shaking a bit. He had come in for one purpose: to sit in my office and cry, and tell me why.
“I’m a Christian,” he said. “I love the Lord. I had a beautiful wife who loves the Lord. I had two children. I had a good job and a good income, enough to take care of my family. We were involved in the church.
“But the money was never enough. I chased it and chased it and chased more of it. I traveled when I didn’t have to travel. I had to succeed, I had to make more, I had to prove myself, and I wanted more money.
“It didn’t take long before our marriage was kaput (i.e., over). My wife left me. I rarely see my children anymore, and I’ve got an emptiness inside that I can’t even describe.”
This is what Paul is talking about: longing for money, chasing it, making wealth your primary goal in life. And what do you get for it? Ruin. Destruction. Misery.
It’s interesting to listen to those who have chased money and caught it. John B. Rockefeller said, “I have made millions, but they have brought me no happiness. I would barter (trade) them all for the days I sat on an office stool in Cleveland and counted myself rich on $3 a week.” W. H. Vanderbilt said, “The care of $200 million is too great a load for any brain or back to bear. It is enough to kill anyone. There is no pleasure in it.” John Jacob Astor, who left $5 million when he died, said before his death: “I am the most miserable man on earth.” And Andrew Carnegie said, “Millionaires seldom smile.” “People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction.”
But then, we don’t want to be millionaires, do we? We just want “a little more.”
THE CURE IS CONTENTMENT
We aren’t doomed to materialism, though, we can choose another road. Look at 1 Tim. 6:6-8: “But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.” Or, we should be – that is Paul’s meaning.
We should be content with the essentials: food and shelter. The Christian operating out of the flesh (sin nature) loves money and pursues it with a quiet vengeance.
The Christian operating under the Spirit of God loves godliness and pursues it with a quiet devotion.
Let me quote John Stott again:
Contentment is the secret of inward peace. It remembers the stark truth that we brought nothing into the world and we can take nothing out of it. Life, in fact, is a pilgrimage from one moment of nakedness to another. So we should travel light and live simply. Our enemy is not possessions, but excess. Our battle cry is not “Nothing” but “Enough!” We’ve got enough. Simplicity says, if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.
At least, as Christians, we should be.
I confess that I have never been content with just food and clothing. Here’s my list: Good food. Nice clothing. Two cars with low mileage. A house – a view would be nice. Vacations, and plenty of them. Ski gear – I “need” some new ski boots. That’s just the beginning.
And no verse in the New Testament strikes the stake into my materialistic heart more deeply than this one: “If we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.” I’m not there yet.
HOW MANY NECKS DO YOU HAVE?
Albert Schweitzer was a medical missionary who died in 1965 at the age of 90. His standard attire was a white pith helmet, white shirt and pants, and a black tie. He had worn one hat for forty years, the tie for twenty.
Told one day that some men owned dozens of neckties, Schweitzer remarked, “For one neck?”
I love that! It makes me stop and think. “For one neck?” I have twenty-three hanging in my closet, some of which I haven’t even worn, some I probably will sell one day in a garage sale.
Can we imagine what our homes would be like if we listened to what God is saying to us here? Just think about it for a moment. “Food and clothing” – the essentials of life. If we were content with these because knowing Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and Friend was enough, what do you think relationships in our homes would be like?
There would be a commitment, not to poverty, but to a more simple lifestyle. There would be no bickering and fighting over money. There would be less worry about the “stuff’ of life.
One of my children, while we were discussing materialism and contentment, added, “Dad, there would be more time spent with kids in the family.” How true! And there would be love between husband and wife, irrespective of the amount of income.
Imagine what it would be like in our homes if we listened to and practiced the Word of God (i.e., what the Bible teaches). If we were preoccupied with goodness and simplicity and the Lord Jesus Christ instead of with money and the stuff it buys.
NO OVERNIGHT COMMITMENT
At the beginning of this article I identified two assumptions. Let me give you a third as I close.
I assume that you, like me, will not walk away from reading this article with the problem of materialism solved. It takes time to work through this struggle. It takes time to grow.
It took the greatest Teacher of all time, the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, years to instill in His men an eternal perspective on life, over and above a temporal, materialistic perspective. His men struggled with it just as you and I do. And they struggled with it day in and day out.
Just so with us: The process of overcoming materialism will take more than just an overnight prayer, reading some articles, or doing a Bible study.
In Philippians 4:12-13, Paul wrote something very much to the point: “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in need. I can do all things through Him who gives me strength.”
Did you catch it? Paul learned to be content in the circumstances of life, rich or poor. And he learned how to do this in relationship with Him (Christ) who strengthens us. Let us go and do the same.
Steve Thurman, Discipleship Journal
Recommended Topics for you:
- “Is Jesus Really Enough?”
- “Money, Riches, and Wealth”
- “(#182) Ash Heap Lives” by Dr. Francis Schaeffer